AS the Queen’s carriage trundled down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace yesterday morning, Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, could afford to sink back into the velvet cushions, look at his travelling companion, Her Majesty the Queen, and contemplate how far he had come from a slum childhood shining shoes on the streets. Yet, as he looked out of the window at the crowds lining the London streets, he would have known how far he still had to go.
At first glance, a group of men and women in Brazilian football tops would have appeared to be his fellow countrymen, ex-pats welcoming their president. However, as the carriage came closer, a 25-metre banner was hoisted, which read: “God Save The Amazon.” Greenpeace, it seemed, was determined to spoil the president’s day.
For, in yesterday morning’s national press, there appeared full-page adverts showing the green flag of Brazil partly eaten away to illustrate the fact that since Da Silva came to power in 2003 an area more than half the size of England has been illegally destroyed by – as the environmentalists would put it – an unholy trinity of loggers, soya farmers and cattle ranchers.
The Amazon rainforest is vast, measuring a total of 7 million square kilometres, of which almost 60 per cent is in Brazil – 4.1 million kilometres.
Between August 2003 and August 2004, 27,200 square kilometres of Brazil were deforested, the second largest annual loss since records began. While the figure dropped slightly the following year to 23,000 square kilometres, the deforestation has been branded a national disgrace by Greenpeace.
Over the past 30 years 15 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has been completely destroyed – equivalent to an area the size of France.
Pat Venditti, a press officer for the environmental pressure group who took part in yesterday’s protest, says: “He looked straight at us and he looked at the banner. Hopefully, this will give him something to think about over the next couple of days.”
It would be hard for Da Silva not to think about the vast swath through the forest in his homeland – a forest known as “the lungs of the earth” for the amount of oxygen it provides. Among his official appointments during the three-day visit is a tour of Brazilian exhibits extracted from the Royal Collection and displayed in his honour. These include intricate drawings of exotic flora and fauna from the rainforest, from a selection of nature books. One book, dated 1820, depicts a golden-rumped lion tamarin monkey, one of the 353 species of mammal who live in the Amazon. Another book, presented to the Queen in 1968 during a visit to Brazil, shows elaborate orange and pink orchids – some of the 60,000 plants to be found in what is the world’s largest natural hothouse.
When it comes to the Amazon, the temperature is rising for Da Silva. The world’s environmentalists were delighted by his election in 2003 on a partly green ticket, only to be disappointed by what they view as a lack of rigorous action to protect the forest. Brazil is on the horns of a dilemma: as a poor country, its most successful businesses are dependant on harvesting the rainforests.
The country’s logging industry is thriving: in 1985, wood from the Amazon accounted for just 12 per cent of the nation’s total production of tropical wood; today, however, it accounts for 90 per cent, with the region providing an estimated 30 million cubic metres of logs each year.
However, it is estimated that 80 per cent of all logging operations are illegal, and so vast is the wilderness that efforts to prevent it have proven futile. The result is that there are now mini-states run by logging companies who, in many cases, use slave labour to clear the land.
The difficulty of policing the situation is illustrated by the fact that, in some parts of the northern Brazilian state of Pará, only one or two forestry police have been assigned to cover areas four times the size of Holland. More often than not they lack helicopters, vehicles and even computers, and are therefore powerless to see, let alone stop, loggers who are now using saws strung between tractors 15m apart to mow down virgin forest.
“We don’t have the financial or human resources to investigate everything so we have to set priorities,” says Alvaro Braga, a forestry agent in Guaranta do Norte, a small town on the Pará border. “There are not enough resources or will to put policies into action.” Silvia Borges, his colleague says: “Everything we do, it’s two steps forward and four steps back. It’s difficult to plan long-term.”
In addition, Brazil has become a major agricultural producer in recent years. It is already in possession of the world’s largest beef herd and is now poised to overtake the US as the world’s largest soya bean producer. The forests are being cut down to create space for cattle to graze and soya plantations to spring up.
One of the worst affected areas is in Mato Grosso, a massive agricultural state run by Blairo Maggi, the governor who also owns the world’s biggest soya company. Almost 48 per cent of recent deforestation has taken place in the state. Maggi was last year presented with a “Golden Chainsaw” by Greenpeace on account of the huge levels of deforestation in the area. In an interview with the New York Times Maggi famously said: “A 40 per cent increase in deforestation doesn’t mean anything at all and I don’t feel the slightest guilt.”
Paulo Adario is Greenpeace’s Amazon Campaign co-ordinator. He explains: : “Maggi is the king of deforestation but Brazil also bears a huge responsibility in the disaster. Da Silva’s administration is facing a fundamental contradiction: fight Amazon deforestation or promote the expansion of agribusiness to pay the Brazilian external debt. To make a real difference on the ground, the government needs to restrict soy plantations to areas that have already been deforested, they need to combat illegal logging, and effectively implement their own anti-deforestation plan.”
Da Silva has made some moves. In July 2004 he introduced an Action Plan to Curb Deforestation which involved an increase in policing, the demarcation of indigenous lands and the creation of protected areas. Yet, to the country’s Green Party, this is not enough. “Lula has been dazzled by power,” says Fernando Gabiera, a Green Party deputy who left Lula’s government in opposition to his support for big business. “He cheated us in that he gave us the impression that we were allies and today he is much more allies with our adversaries. But then again he cheated many sectors. He got into government and changed positions.”
Not everyone is so harsh on Da Silva. Simon Counsell, director of The Rainforest Foundation, which was set up by the musician Sting in 1989 to assist the indigenous people of the area, says the news is not all “doom and gloom”. In February a presidential decree was passed that created new conservation areas of 6.4 million hectares, an area twice the size of Belgium, of which 1.6 million hectares will be permanently protected and sealed off from loggers, while 2.8 million hectares will be accessible to loggers but only those practising good management.
Counsell says: “The evidence shows that legally recognising and demarcating the land of the native people, the indigenous tribes who live in the Amazon, has proven to be very effective as a way of conserving those forests. The president has taken some important positive steps over the last couple of years or so and what we would like to see is for him to go much further and for all the remaining indigenous rainforest people’s land to be legally protected.
“He has done some good. Last year a very important area in the northern part of the Amazon rainforest was protected by a presidential decree. It has to be said, however, that what he has been doing is to allow the continued expansion of very destructive activities.”
Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, is also keen to point out the president’s successes.
“President Lula has made encouraging noises and recently placed over a million hectares of rainforest completely off-limits for development.
“A further four national forests were created, too. However, despite these announcements, the Brazilian government has largely failed to implement its plan to combat deforestation launched by Da Silva in March 2004.
“On present deforestation rates, Lula will be, at the end of this year, the president with the highest deforestation record in his mandate in the history of Brazil.”
“Developers, both legally and illegally, are busy at work exploiting Brazil’s natural resources with little or no care for people or the environment. The illegal tactics used can involve violence, destruction of homes and, in the worst cases, even murder. Da Silva needs to ensure action is taken to protect communities from such threats.
“Apart from timber harvesting, Brazil’s forests are under threat from many types of developments.
“Huge roads, soya farms, pipelines and hydro-electric dams are being proposed all the time. .”
President Da Silva awoke this morning in an opulent bedroom in Buckingham Palace. But, as he continues his State visit, it is likely that even among the pomp and circumstance of the British court, the rainforests of his home country will not be allowed to stay far from his thoughts.